With such a terrible Newspoll result at the start another parliamentary week, Malcolm Turnbull could hardly get away with adopting the usual high-minded non-response to poor polling — especially given the raison d’etre for his prime ministership was Tony Abbott’s poor polling. Why had Labor now extended its two-party preferred lead to 55-45%? Why has Turnbull’s net disapproval plumbed the new depth of -30? It was Tony Abbott’s fault, Turnbull insisted today, for timing last week’s outburst for maximum effect on Newspoll.

This neatly avoids the more pressing question of whether Turnbull’s strategy since the start of the year, of shifting to the right and fully embracing Tony Abbott’s political methods of scare campaigns and delegitimisation of his opponent, is working. Has Tony Abbott distracting from Malcolm Turnbull turning into Tony Abbott caused the bad polling result, or did Turnbull turning into Abbott cause it?

Neither is a particularly good outcome for the government given Abbott isn’t about to go away and could, should he be minded to, offer what could become a fortnightly series of helpful suggestions for his party that will ruin every poll for months to come. Nor does Turnbull have much room to manoeuvre if he thinks he needs to shift back to the political centre: his party and his coalition partner won’t let him. For the Nationals and some on the Liberal right, it’s no longer merely about ideology — they can only look at One Nation’s surging polling numbers and wonder if they’ll be in the firing line unless they find a way to stem the shift of voters to the extremist party. From some state and federal Coalition MPs, it might only be Labor’s adherence to what used to be the bipartisan policy of preferencing One Nation last that saves them.

Turnbull is now looking a lot like that series of now ex-Republican congressional veterans who were ousted by the Tea Party after 2008, from Trent Lott through to John Boehner. None of them were exactly moderate, and all of them tried to accommodate an extremist fringe that was determined to oust them because they could never be as purely and authentically far right. All ended up tossed out; Boehner now spends much of his time publicly enjoying the travails of his former colleagues. The Tea Party can now claim vindication via Trump, but in a system of compulsory and preferential voting no victory awaits for neo-fascists here.

For Turnbull, whose mimicry of Abbott is bound to constantly remind a substantial proportion of the electorate how he used to be different, pandering to the far right isn’t going to protect him, and not just because Abbott is determined to undermine him. The Howard government successfully fought One Nation in the late 1990s, led by Tim Fischer, John Anderson and Ron Boswell, with Tony Abbott running the black ops. That success has been forgotten, particularly by the Nationals, who now seem more interesting in apeing, or even joining, Hanson than in fighting her. And that extends to Abbott, who has gone from Hanson’s most devoted enemy to publicly advocating her extremist agenda.

There’s no easy way out of this for Turnbull. The law of averages suggests the next Newspoll will be better for him. But fortnightly fluctuations won’t change the fact that he’s being dragged to the right, leaving Labor to occupy the centre ground where — as Turnbull has remarked before — most voters reside.

Peter Fray

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